In his words the Trobriand Islander poet and political activist, John Kasaipwalova, described Papua New Guineans as reluctant flames. This description is made in his powerful poem “The Reluctant Flame” written and published before Independence arrived in Papua New Guinea. It was one of the forceful, yet direct assault on the colonial power to abandon the seat of power, thereby providing the political space for Independence and birth of a nation we now call Papua New Guinea.
The poem is one of the classical poems that we refer to in our discussions about the role of literature in Papua New Guinea. Written before Independence the poem remains central to studying the mindset of Papua New Guineans in that period in our national history.
The lines from “The Reluctant Flame” that I often return to is Where is that flame!!! Where has it gone!!!
The acid in my heart kicks with volcanic tremors
My veins, my arteries, they bulge with swelling resentment
I tremble in frenzy to smash open
To let the acid, the fire and the boulder in my throat
Spew outwards into every direction of havoc cyclone and
Green mountains will boast their size and their forgiveness
A passing eye will sing their permanency and solidness
But inside each mountain lies a tiny flame cradled and weighted
People will live, people will die
But the tiny flame will grow its arms and legs very slowly
Until one day its volcanic pulse will tear the green mountain apart
To allow pent up blood flow and congested vomit spit freely.
The power of this poem is its challenge to my generation to speak up without fear of punishment or shame of being who we are. Colonialism has created a permanent place in our conscience through its repressive ideological apparatuses. As a generation of Papua New Guineans born in the colonial period and celebrating independence we have a responsibility to question the values of colonialism. We must erase the stigma born of the colonized experience.
The stigma can emerge in the form of dependency on the former colonizer or from our own weakness in submitting ourselves as lazy, stubborn, and unwilling citizens in the development of our nation through various strategic and developmental plans and agenda that our leaders work at enforcing. In short we wanted change before Independence, which we got, but now our reluctance in changing our mindsets and attitudes seem counter-productive to a nationalistic agenda.
It is also a challenge to my generation and my grandchildren’s generation to change. Living in the past glory and successes of the past can have its own futile ending.
In our best efforts we must stride towards a common goal of making our nation the epitome of a silent dream. That silent dream is that we must rubbishing ourselves with unwanted behaviors that we exhibit everyday such as disrespecting fellow citizens in private and public places, breaking traffic rules such as driving through red lights, crossing road islands, driving in a dangerous way on public roads, throwing cans and rubbish out of a traveling vehicle, and selling goods in places we are not supposed to trade such as outside shops, under trees in public places, at bus tops, at service stations, and generally on the streets.
All these and others such as littering our roads with empty cans and rubbish make us look under-developed, stupid, and ridiculous. Was this the nation that John Kasaipwalova and fellow Papua New Guinean poets like Kumalau Tawali, Apisai Enos, Dus Mapun, and Peter Kama Kerpi imagined. Or is it that the laugher we had in the past is now on us from those we used to laugh at as in these stanzas of Tawali’s poem: “The Bush Kanaka Speaks”:
The kiap shouts at us
forcing the veins to stand out in his neck
nearly forcing the excreta out of his bottom
he says: you are ignorant
He says we live in dirty rubbish houses.
Has he every lived in one?
Has he enjoyed the sea breeze
blowing through the windows?
and the cool shade under the pandanus thatch?
Let him keep his iron roof, shining in the sun,
Cooking him inside, bleaching his skin white.
The fire in the words of these great men of Papua New Guinea had its impact in the way a nation was formed. The question now is whether Papua New Guineans care about what they have made themselves to be in the turn of the century.
In Port Moresby the excellent efforts of the Governor Powes Parkop to clean up the city, make NCD a safe city, beautiful, and modern seems to escape those stubborn city residents who refuse to change their rubbish attitude, their backward behavior, and tribal tendencies that sabotage a nationalistic agenda. Kudos, it is to Governor Parkop and his dedicated team and partners who are spending millions of kina to correct the negative mindset of city residents. It would not have been the case if we as a free and Independent people, challenged ourselves to exercise responsible, self-respecting, and value added behaviors.
Right now the national anxiety is how do we get out of the mess we created for ourselves? Do we leave it to the politicians, leaders, and our respective governments levels to change the way we do things or do we as individuals exercise a literate and civilized sensibility to the betterment of good that we desire as an imagined community? We are what we make of ourselves in our decisions and actions of the past. No one forced us to abandon our beautiful hamlets and villages in the valleys, on the coasts, and islands. No one made us flog into towns to overcrowd cities and engage in unwanted social activities that are self-denigrating, irresponsible, and irritating to our fellow country men and women.
We can become the people we want to be tomorrow. A better future is one we all must work at achieving through a changed mindset that believes in itself.